Case Study: Show Of Hands

Steve Knightley & Phil Beer of Show Of HandsShow Of Hands headline the Royal Albert Hall
for a fourth time on Sunday 7th April 2012

Tom: Show Of Hands are highly unusual in the extent of your lateral thinking about the business. You might imagine some techno outfit that’s making dance records for twopence in a bedroom would have a radical approach – but it’s the last thing you’d expect from an acoustic duo playing a traditional-based music.

Steve: A lot of it stems from the fact that I didn’t become a professional musician till I was 40. I’d done the folk scene and London pub-rock but in terms of actually earning my exclusive living from music it wasn’t till 1994 that I gave up part-time teaching.

What was your background ?

In my family the only occupations that got high status were sports or performing. Elvis and Frank Sinatra… sport particularly: the whole family looked up to that. My stepbrother was on the books as a semi-professional footballer for a while, and I was quite good at lots of sports when younger. But I didn’t get any credit for being clever, or good at English or anything like that.

Where did you grow up ?

Dad worked as a Resident Uncle in boys’ homes around Portsmouth, where they would have sixteen young guys from the age of four until twelve from the back streets of Portsmouth. From when I was 4 till about 8 we moved about eight times. So I didn’t grow up with a peer group and had to try and use whatever skills I could muster to get in with friends. So I was good at language, good at fooling about, good at sport. We finally ended up at the edge of Exeter. Over the hill it was orchards and farmland.

The major influence came when my stepbrother joined the Royal Greenjackets. He had an American father who was a sailor, so we didn’t officially adopt him but we brought him up – which meant he was fiercely, violently protective of anything to do with the Knightley family. But once he was a soldier I used to mix him up with the whole Elvis Presley thing – he would have been sixteen, seventeen – a big brother sort of figure.

How old were you then ?

Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven… When Den came home on leave he brought back lots of records as well as Elvis he really was into Joan Baez – as if this violent life he led was balanced by very melodic and narrative music. So I heard all the Child Ballads on those early albums.

Child Ballads?

The ones collected on the borders and throughout England by Child, the chronicler – a lot of the ballads Joan Baez sang were Child Ballads – they tend to be almost mediaeval in their origins and storylines. Then he brought home ‘The Freewheeling Bob Dylan’ and that was like the world shifting on its axis. This was like another big brother whispering in your ear – it had just an extraordinary effect on me. So I started playing guitar and learned how to fingerpick and do all the Dylan stuff. Back then, around 1969-70, acoustic music wasn’t regarded as “folkie”. The Incredible String Band and Richie Havens had just done Woodstock and it was regarded as quite a cool thing to do. With all the foreign students in Exmouth, playing my acoustic guitar was a way of meeting the girls. It wasn’t considered naff – as it later became.

After I began to play Dylan stuff I then heard Martin Carthy at Sidmouth in 1969 and was utterly transfixed at this tuned guitar style. I remembered seeing Carthy’s name on the back of the ‘Freewheeling Bob Dylan’ album as the source of a tune, for ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’. So stuff I’d been enjoying from North America was actually British in its origin.

It had a narrative, melodic basis that was ours so I spent about the next four years getting really into traditional music in a big way, going through all these old books. Some of them aren’t very good, some are really strong. So I formed a group with my mate Paul, singing primarily traditional music and the odd Dylan stuff. Then came college in Coventry and I started writing. Paul went professional with Phil (Beer) and started singing some of my songs. They were all relationship stuff – not narrative – and quite well received, particularly when Paul and Phil recorded a couple of them.

Then I went to do an education certificate in Brighton around 1977 and along came punk and everything changed again. It was like folk music couldn’t be more uncool, thanks to the funny men – the Mike Hardings, Jasper Carrotts and all that crowd. So after college I moved to London and put together a band called ‘The Cheats’ with an Australian bassist I’d met who was 8 years older than me. We adopted the blazers-and-tie prefect look, thrashed up my songs and started doing the London pub-rock circuit. We did a little tour with the Alex Harvey Band – shouting, screaming, playing at 100mph and not really cutting it, to be honest. By 1981 I’d met Simone (SK’s wife), and put another band together with a fiddler called Barry Wickens, the same drummer and a couple of guys from ‘Doll by Doll’. And this time we were good.

What were you called ?
‘Short Stories’. We got a management deal and though it was my band, everybody was there because of The Dream: “We’re going to go for it, it’s all going to happen”. Steve Harley was going to produce the single, but then our manager started saying “Steve’s not sure about the guitar player”. What I should have said was “fuck you – if you don’t like it, sod off”. But I didn’t.

It’s a hard decision.
I remember one night after a gig, Doll by Doll’s guitarist, Joe Short came down and said “fucking good gig, man” and I told him “Yeah, but we’re making some changes”. And Joe said “you’re a fucking idiot” right into my face: “you’ve got a band, a fucking band…” then walked away. Doll by Doll were going through a bit of a crisis and he’d thought we were getting everything right – we had a following, an atmosphere. And there was me listening to all these people going “Well maybe this or that isn’t quite right, maybe it’s the drum sound”. Sure enough, within a year of changing things it was “Hello, anybody out there?”

The band just…
Yeah the band just fragmented. The manager kept bringing people like Tommy Vance and Nicky Horne to our gigs – but people aren’t honest are they? They never say “I don’t really like it”. They tend to say “well maybe if you could get rid of this, or alter that…” So after a while I put together another Short Stories lineup with Phil (Beer) on guitar and fiddle but it wasn’t the same.

A band is a band isn’t it ? You can’t just hire and fire people.
It’s an atmosphere – and it’s either a shared dream or you pay people wages. When it’s a dream and it’s working, you don’t alter the ingredients.

Brian Eno once said (of a group he was producing) that someone’s musical contributions might be erratic, but that his presence was “essential to the social ecology of the band”…
Yeah – so after a while I found myself on my own again. I did some work as a singer-songwriter for a Radio 2 programme called Night Rider. I lived just over the road from Maida Vale studios and two close friends were BBC engineers. They could get you in, record eight songs in three hours and put you out as Easy Listening music after midnight. “That was the Beach Boys and now a song from Steve Knightley”. It was me singing a selection of my stuff, with Phil playing acoustic guitar. Anyway, around 1986 Simone and I decided we would move back to Dorset and open a whole food country guest house. All over really for the music business.

Phil went back to English folk rock with Ashley Hutchings and the Albion Band. Then one day in 1987 he said “let’s go out as a duo: I’ll get some folk club dates and we’ll make a little cassette in your back room in Dorset, in the garage”. We’d known each other, at that time, 15 years and I’d earned quite a lot of PRS (Performing Rights Society) income from Night Rider. So in an outbuilding in the remotest part of Dorset, Phil and I put together this little studio and recorded our first Show of Hands cassette. We went out and did maybe 25 gigs a year on the folk scene to audiences of twenty people – seventy sometimes, if we were lucky. But it was low key.

Then in 1991 Phil left the Albion Band and we started looking for more work. We started playing pubs along the South coast – which has since proved the single most important factor in Show of Hands’ background. The head of Gosport council (a fantastic guy called Peter Chegwyn) had this policy of bringing acoustic muscicians to local bars and supplementing the fee up to £100. So you’d turn up at a pub in this scheme, full of guys playing darts and pool, and say “We’re going to have music tonight”. It soon became apparent that you couldn’t do the “My Life Is In Ruins” bit. We got a set together that relied on stuff like “Summertime Blues” and “Killgary Mountains”, but we’d also start chucking in my songs. I started formatting what I wrote just to go down in pubs – writing in rhythms people perceived as being Standards. Instead of ‘Pretty Flamingo’ we did a song called ‘All Your Fault’. After three or four visits the crowd still wanted to hear standards, but they’d also say “Do Cars!”, “Do Tallships!” or whatever. So we got more and more confident about our own material.

Irish musicians validate their stuff nightly in front of ordinary working people in free admission venues but no-one in their right mind would have chosen such a strategy over here – it was just a question of earning money. Our performing attitude was: go right up to the mike, play loud and play hard. So when, after two years of pub work, we took that attitude onto the main stage at Cambridge, straight away it was BINGO ! You could see a lot of people…

Sitting up and taking notice?
Yeah. In a good way. It was serious delivery without any of this tuning or dithering about – which immediately gave us an edge on our English competitors. We had rock/pub fitness – that selfassurance the Irish and all those other people have. The knowledge that their music works in all those other venues too. Plus the fact that we had original songs as well.

The ability to deconstruct Standards, work out what it is about them that connects – and then write good substitutes really sets Show Of Hands apart.
But it’s also that question of delivery. After five years in a band, I now play clipped, very modally – even on cello mandolin – while Phil is playing what a lead guitarist would be doing. Second position chords, riffs and runs. So it’s very much a Rock-Attitude Duo, singing these English narrative songs with traditional instruments. In a sense that’s our secret weapon, plus the fact that we have a Division One sound guy adding all sorts of echoes and effects as a third member of the band.


At what point did it stop being ‘Steve-and-Phil-doing-some-Folk-gigs-because-you-needed-some-money’ and become a serious musical project ?
The tour with Ralph McTell. The end of ’93. We’d just done Cambridge so we had a bit of a reputation and we did a fifty date tour with him. As a young man in his early twenties Ralph had major success, so he’s constantly disenchanted with The Business now that it’s not doing those same things for him anymore. But he’s full of stagecraft wisdom. After about eight gigs he said “Look – tell me to mind my own business if you want, but when Phil is doing a solo you look as if you’re not interested. Show that you’re into it – watch him ! Or else step back out of the light so as to…

Make him the focus of attention ?
Exactly. Ralph would say it’s about being generous on stage. His attitude was “I don’t always get it right myself but I know what works because I’ve been watching people do this for 30 years.”

Any other tips you can pass on ?
There were loads…

*Take your own sound sytem and your own engineer. No compromise. It’s got to sound good – it’s what people are paying for. So even when we were only on £80 fees we had our own sound engineer.

*Be honest about what you’re capable of. A lot of songwriters think because one song is about Jacqueline and the next about Angela that they’re different songs but if it’s the same fingerpicking type of chord sequence, it’s the same experience for the audience. Group your material into categories and have different category songs follow each other.

* Don’t get too wrapped up in your own performance. One night Ralph told me “you were more moved than moving – more into it yourself than the audience were. It was a bit too much.”

*When you’ve finished your last song, walk in front of the monitors and take a bow. The volume doubles because you’re crossing into everybody else’s space, and people like that – it’s a good body language thing.

*People don’t want to hear you talking about money or referring to your stuff as merchandise. It’s songs. It’s music. And don’t let them see you talking about the deal, the money or expenses even if you’re dealing with it yourself. Just try to keep that separate. Conduct yourself with a certain dignity.

*No post mortems after a show – absolutely forbidden. Any problems – save it until the next day. Have a nice time and celebrate by all means. But everyone will be too vulnerable, wound up, elated or depressed for post mortems.

*No conversation before 12 o’clock. No small talk, no “Good morning everybody, blah blah blah”. Getting on the bus at 10.30 no one should consider it rude to just sit down and read the paper. And then at twelve come alive. That was a good rule. That was also when post mortems could be held.

The most important thing he told us was “Stop doing gigs and start doing tours. You’ve got to start working in set periods. Give it a name. Try and have a new album available and advertise it. Try and make it a distinct event.” What we do now is either tours, festivals or special events. It changes the way you think about working and how you structure the year.

So in ’94 we put it all together: Album. Tour. Sound engineer. Van. The first engineer was too volatile and it didn’t really work, so we employed Gerard – who’d done the Barely Works and various other bands – and has been with us ever since. After an Arts Centre tour in ’95 with a compilation album (on a local record label called Isis) we recorded ‘Lie Of the Land’. Our aim was to capture what we do live by recording all the intruments D.I.

Tom: ie plugged in, the way people hear the sound on stage ?
Yeah – normally when people take acoustic instruments into a studio they get the mikes out. Like, “sorry everyone – that may be what you heard live but now it’s going to sound like a PROPER guitar.” Gerard was saying from his point of view the D.I. thing is what makes it sound different and kicks in effects at a massive rate. The thump you get from the pickup is what turns it into acoustic rock. The record company were pissed off with the sound of the album – also because it was live, with very few overdubs. But it ended up being Q’s folk album of the year.

And you didn’t even have finger-in-the-ear voices !
I don’t know why the English decide that they have to sing like that. My theory (that’s always getting me into trouble) is that folk music died out because it sounded so horrible. Anywhere in the world with a living tradition – Morocco, India, Cuba, Spain – the musical technique is absolutely fantastic. They play extraordinarily well and delight in all the vocal tricks. Whereas, when you actually hear the original wax cylinder recordings of turn-of-the century English singers, they can’t sing – they really can’t ! Even the guys traditionalists hold out as being the last remaining ones – they’re nice guys but technically… can they sustain that note, or roll it ? Not really. So it seems to me the singing went into a stylistic dead-end where no one actually enjoyed the sound they made. My opinion is that it wasn’t the war or social forces that killed it off. People just said “Oh for God’s sake, shut up”.

I remember going on anti-apartheid demos in the eighties were you’d have a whole bunch of African exiles, orinary citizens, down the front singing national songs of incredible polyrhythmic complexity.
It was the same with the Chileans we toured with. In the van one of these guys would just start singing and they’d all join in. For the three Englishmen to have done that would have been quite a self-conscious thing and we didn’t really have that repertoire of songs that had been sung at birthdays, weddings, and funerals. Little kids here simply don’t grow up hearing their relatives sing.

There was stuff I remember from the family gathered round the piano – and at school – in the fiftie’The Vicar of Bray’, ‘No John, No’… stuff we don’t hear anymore.
Yeah, but it was still Victorianised and classicised folk music. It wasn’t what you heard in the fields and in the pubs.

Er, no.
In working people’s pubs no one sings folk music. They want to hear C&W, R&B, rock & roll or the latest pops but the actual folk singing thing doesn’t exist in the way it does in Ireland or Chile. We English haven’t got a bedrock of musical experience.

How come you’ve been able do it, then ? Did music in your home background contribute to that.
I don’t really think so – it was just as I say the high status put on as entertainment or maybe earning the applause of the family group. Whatever. Where does it come from, that need for acclaim and what is it ? I know it’s a drug. I’ve actually got that addiction.

But that’s to do with Performance as opposed to Musicianship. A musician like Alan Holdsworth can still play a blinding gig even if no-one’s there to applaud because he plays music for music’s sake. Whereas at the opposite extreme there’s be no point in, say, John Otway setting up and playing in an empty hall. As a performer his gigs depend totally on audience interaction.

In May we did a tour with some fantastic English musicians: Kate Rusby, Andy Cutting and (in particular) Chris Wood who’s a formidable person and quite uncompromising: he does what he does and that’s it. If an audience happens to like it, that’s fine. If they don’t, he’ll just go through the motions or walk off. “I’ll have the money now, I’m going”. Chris and Andy regarded our crowd pleasers – songs like ‘See My Baby Again’ – as the naffest thing we did. But then I was thinking: “this tour, this van, this PA, this whole structure exists because I think about what people will really want to hear at this time of the evening.” So this Performer versus Musician thing is quite close to home. We’ve since decided not to do that song any more but I’m not going to stop adopting that approach…

You stopped doing it ? Have audiences declined as a result ?
No they haven’t.

So in a sense Chris was right.
In one sense yes, but in a sense the reason he’s still at home in Kent wondering what to do next with his career is because he’s not prepared to play the necessary games. Whereas we’ve constantly changed and reconstructed things to evolve a way of working.

Is your ideology conscious – could you state it ?
Phil and I are essentially a multi instrumentalist and a singer/songwriter – and what songwriters have to do is to describe their world. Most songwriters try and make this journey to becoming sort of internationalist – relationships occur in an urban environment of hotels and bars that’s almost universal. Almost by accident I’ve decided to go in reverse from that and focus on a particular part of Dorset. I can think of almost which part of a hill certain songs refer to, or which part of the island. The prosaic doesn’t have to be mundane or banal – I think that whatever your world is, that’s what you have to describe.

But not to your own greater glory – you’re just the channel through which the story is told…
Well audiences care more what happened to the preacher on Portland than they care what happened to Steve Knightley: you become other people for the benefit of that song rather than singing about yourself. I don’t think I’ve written a love song as such. When people bring that off, it’s the most powerful thing there is – but I’ve always worried about aspiring to that and not succeeding. What do you do then ? Coming from the English narrative tradition I’m used to telling stories about this and that so it seemed more natural to write songs in that genre rather than talk about my personal landscape.

Steve Knightley & Phil Beer

You’re much more analytical about what you do than I’d expected. Have you ever thought about what Show of Hands are selling, to whom, and what needs you’re satisfying ?

I think there’s a type of rural English identity that hasn’t been captured musically. In an urban setting like Liverpool or Manchester – yes. But we have no following within the cities at all. And it’s not just in music: English people outside the urban areas are trying to find a sense of identity in food, beer, single issue politics… whatever. Traditionally it’s been about Toryism, nostalgia, village green postcard stuff… I think they’re now looking for another voice. Wherever we perform songs about water dowsing, farming or hunting, people recognise an England that they don’t see portrayed elsewhere. They like it in the same way they like the local brewery – I see us fulfilling that sort of need. What was it Dennis Potter said? “Just connect.” There are moments now when I feel a real connection with where our audience really are. I find it unforgivable at Glastonbury to see people do their ‘Festival Set’ with no sense of where they are and who’s out there. Sheryl Crow said “You’re looking good” and we’re fucking covered in nine inches of mud.

“Just connect” – that’s right on the money, isn’t it
it’s a fantastic motto I think. Of course a lot of it’s accident and happens at random. What surprises me is that narrative melodic songs rooted in the west country also seem to connect with people in India, in Holland, in Boston… they all have this mental picture of the Portland that we create.

Which doesn’t have to have any basis in the geographical reality – you create a community of the mind
That’s right – people are being drawn into our world and liking it. At Glastonbury we went to see The Prodigy. They had all the trimmings – the evil atmosphere, the flickering lights, the real edge in the crowd – very atmospheric, very tense, very urban. Their opening number was “Smack My Bitch Up” – the most evil title of a song you can imagine – played really, really loud with all the white lights full on into the audience stuff. Then after about three numbers all their onstage MIDI stuff goes down. They’re on huge 20′ video screens shrugging their shoulders. Liam Howlett (who’s basically got a recording studio on stage) is saying “No, no don’t plug it in there” and suddenly they’re reduced from Gothic cartoon figures into sort of pathetic really. And of course, without even articulating it, people just think it’s the band’s fault – why did they let that happen ?

And why didn’t the lead singer come out and do something instead
Yes exactly – in a way it’s a magnificent spectacle but it’s all reliant on that technology: they can’t connect in any other way. Radiohead the next night was a different atmosphere entirely: people felt that they really knew Thom Yorke and were shouting “Go on, Thom !”… I didn’t know the material or the band but was completely entranced – it was so uncompromising and so emotional. Just a wonderful experience. It restored your faith in the power of bands on stage to connect.

How difficult has it been for you, as recording artists, to bypass the normal record company channels ?
Show Of Hands absolutely rely on selling albums at gigs. We’ve decided the ‘home taping is killing music’ proposition is fundamentally flawed. Making a tape for someone is an act of affection and commitment to the music – so we encourage everyone to tape our CDs and spread the music around. Seeing as we’re not manufacturing cassettes of the new album, on this tour we’re contemplating giving away a free blank cassette – like, ‘From Show Of Hands with love’…

What margin do you make on a CD by pressing it yourselves ?
Well if we sell a CD for £12, we could probably be making £7-8 profit. After the first run of a thousand there are none of the mastering costs, so re-pressing is even cheaper.

So on that basis it becomes worthwhile for somebody to come specifically to sell them at gigs for you…
Particularly if we can get 200-300 people in a venue, maybe even more. With a new album out the merchandise alone can bring in £1,000 on some nights. Also we don’t have to pay hotels and all that – we get provided with accommodation anyway a lot of the time because of working with civilians.

You actually stay at people’s houses ?
A lot of Show Of Hands fans are quite well-heeled so we do have these safe houses scattered throughout the country now where we can stay in middle class heaven – reluctantly of course… one friend’s got a little priory near Norfolk – places like that are fine !

It must take a bit of tact and diplomacy to not stay at less congenial ones, though.
It does, really. Particularly if one of the reasons they put on the gig is because of the access to you that it gives them. It can be a bit wearing ’cause you have to accept that you’re at work from the moment you arrive at a venue to the moment you go to bed

Could you tell us about the workshops ?
When we were planning the Albert Hall show, the backers didn’t want us to do any regular shows in the six months preceding it, but meanwhile we still had to earn a living. So we thought we would organise a ‘workshop’ tour – purely acoustic, non participatory, for up to fifty people in unusual settings. A complete illustrated guide to what we do for a living: the cello mandolin, guitar and the cuatro… tempos, keys, setlists, why Phil plays certain solos… the whole thing, right down to our choice of strings. We managed to structure it in a fairly detailed way so it was like a trip through the instruments, (their capabilities and how we use them.) Then we asked people we knew to find a pub back room – perhaps a Friends’ Meeting House, converted chapel or even a big living room – and sell tickets for about £5-6 pounds. They had to act as the box office and collect the money – some were good at it, some weren’t so good. We did about 22 dates – and filmed one of them. The beauty is that any night of the week is fine because you’re not working to club or weekend nights – you can work geographically around the country.

It was really successful and we’re going to do it again. It means you’re earning and touring although you’re not publicly out and about. The other thing is you rehearse and routine about half a dozen new songs by the end – it’s the only time Phil and I really rehearse. I tend to have a complete song that Phil accompanies – then we edit what we think is good.

Phil Beer & Steve Knightley

How about regular gigs ?
We now don’t charge a fee – its all done on guarantees. Say, for example, a fan lives in Chester and complains that we never play there. We ask if he can get hold of a hall. He says he can get the Union Hall for £25, which seats 300. So we say, “Right – we’ve got the PA, lights and the mailing list. You just act as the box office contact number, publicise it locally – and we’ll come and do it. Cover your costs, pay yourself a percentage and we’ll take the rest.” Next thing you know, we’re going home with £1500. We work all over the country on that basis.

If you have an agent it comes between you and operating like that. If we want to go and work at Port Isaac Lifeboat Station for a 5050 split and raise £600 for the lifeboat – an agent would be unhappy about that. We now have about 20 or 30 people all over the country who originally booked us at their local village hall and now they’re hiring big places in Norwich. 500 seaters. All through this idea of them being the box office, and we publicise it through the mailing list.

Haven’t you had bad experiences with people who couldn’t promote the proverbial brewery piss-up ?
No. Most of them are real fans who’ll involve every friend and relative they can possibly get because they don’t want to embarrass you. If a promoter or agent is running the venue, we have to be a bit more careful. Most of them would rather pay a straight fee – they’d rather not get in to the whole percentage thing. If it’s a festival, obviously, it’s a flat fee. That’s straightforward. But 80% of our gigs now are from people who run their own gigs. They look after you feed you and so on – that can be a bit wearing, but it’s swings and roundabouts. The last time we had anything to do with agents we were slapped round the face so efficiently we almost had to admire the way it was done.

What happened ?
This agent said I want to put on a gig for you guys up in Preston. Give me your list of local names and address and I’ll mail them to promote it. So we gave him our 500 – 600 names and he found us this gig in Preston upstairs in a pub… He’d sold about 140 tickets at £8 to all our regulars that had been on the mailing list. They were expecting a concert, but there were no seats. He said no, it’s not that sort of venue. So they all crowded in, we did the gig – and it was a very unpleasant experience: not the concert we’d been led to believe. The agent says “We’ve grossed about £900. Built-in profit £200. Trips from Southport, phone bills, mailout charges, tea and sandwiches £30 and so on. 80% of what’s left… here’s your £260.” And we drove away thinking… that’s how you do it – we were really impressed…

By the sheer barefaced cheek of it all ?
(laughs) Gerard said “Do you want to deal with people like that or do you want to have a nice life ?” Nowadays we’re going away with more money, no-one is feeling ripped off and everybody’s having a nice time. People are feeling they’ve put on an event – it’s more community-based. Gerard is crucial to defining this way of working – thinking laterally and actually having a nice life. Ralph finds it very hard to trust percentages – I think he likes to know there’s a fee at the end of the day.

The downside is you have to take your own PA around so you’ve got bigger transport costs… or have you always carried your own PA?
One of Phil’s axioms was, we must have our own PA and sound engineer. We’d hear all these other bands whingeing… How can a four piece acoustic group go to a festival situation without their own sound man? I don’t understand that mindset.

But you could specify in the contract that a PA will be provided…
But you don’t know what you’re going to get. Even when we found a good PA – like The Boat Race in Cambridge – we took ours in and it was actually quicker. Even at festivals we take our own effects rack and mikes and Gerard completely retunes the PA for our set using our graphics. The PA crews are delighted – it’s less work for them. We do the same in Spain and Holland – there are some really excellent PAs but we just prefer that comfort of being self-contained.

But then you have to hump your own PA cabinets…
Yeah but we got a deal from Hz and their stuff is really light. The only downside is putting away mics and leads and all that stuff. But now we’re employing someone to do all that because what Phil and I need to be doing after shows is getting out there and meeting people. We’ve got someone doing backline who’s also a trained lighting person. Attention to detail about lighting is something we picked up from you…

So what do you carry now?
Just a basic lighting rig of eight lamps for village halls and non-lighting theatres. Where they’ve actually got a lighting rig, Will is competent enough to focus it and do all that sort of thing. The speakers are a yard by half a yard by eight inches deep and four of them is as loud as you would ever wish to be. Plus two for foldback and one big bass bin which chucks out a lot of bottom end.

You must need something pretty big to carry all that plus rack, desk, mike stands, instruments, people, luggage…
Yeah it’s a VW Caravel. Fantastic. There’s only two rows of seats then all the back for the gear. It hammers along – the PA is very light.

So who’s in the van these days ?
There’s Phil, me and Gerard in the band, plus Will doing PA and lights… the fifth person is Vaughan who’s doing our merchandising as his own project. About two years ago we asked him to run our mail order and now he’s not only doing that but sending out stuff to radio stations and (licensee) record companies – doing all that distribution side of it.

Too many bands just sit around waiting for a big record company to discover them, waiting for The Deal…
…yeah, as if that was salvation and redemption. I always say to people, forget it – honestly – just write your songs and go perform them. If anyone from a record company is interested, it’s them who will be buttonholing you at the end of the evening. If you have to drag them in, cultivate and persuade them to like you, you’re already on a loser. Just do what you do and hope that it happens.

Even releasing an album on your own label, there’s still the chance of a cover version or a film soundtrack…
Yeah, somebody could hear it and it could mean an injection of capital. I’ve seen that happen. But these sorts of event come to you from outside your own control – you can’t legislate or plan for them. Meanwhile you’ve still got to be doing something to earn a living. We’re in a situation where we’re trying to build, develop and spread the word without relying on this injection of luck. The other thing of course is that – if it does happen – we own the rights to every note.

Publishing – and recording – rights ?
Every note. After much agonising and argument we bought back the rights from our last record company so now we own it all. So that’s what I say to people. Do it as well as you can, and own it all yourself.

Earlier you mentioned the Albert Hall show… (Show Of Hands successfully headlined the Royal Albert Hall in 1996 – with fans swarming in by coach from all over the country to make it their most successful show ever). How did that come about?
Originally I was with my friend and former manager John Roseman and idly said ‘What do you think it costs to hire the Albert Hall ?’ Typical Roseman – he picks up the phone and asks them. He looked at the details – thirteen grand or whatever it was – and said ‘Yeah this could work: two thousand people, 18 quid each.’

So we went away and thought about it. There was only one player we knew on the folk scene with the expertise to make it happen – a guy called Steve Heaney, who runs Mrs Casey Music in Aylesbury. Steve said ‘Yeah it could work but we need to share the risk.’ So we approached a Show Of Hands fan called Richard Paterson – he’s in computer software, very successful – who said straight away ‘Yeah, I’ll back it.’

Steve and Richard were simply concerned to make their money back while we wanted to use it as a profile-raiser. And it really worked. Quite a lot of people now know Show Of Hands as ‘Those guys who did the Albert Hall’. So it’s opened a lot of doors. In India there was a tremendous cachet – we were checked out by people who came to see us just because of having played the Royal Albert Hall. In America as well. It also gave us an album that cost £200 on the night to record and which has sold 4,000-5,000 copies.

Earning you well over over £20,000 as a result…
… and what a great calling card to send a festival promoter in, say, Germany. So it exceeded all our expectations in that sense. What it didn’t do was to get anybody talking about the music. The press were only interested if the story was that Phil and I were risking our last penny. They didn’t want to hear that we had backers.

And did you break even?
Oh yes, everyone got paid the money and we even made a small festival fee ourselves for doing it. And it was a great event – people still talk about it in glowing terms.

Has it increased audience numbers ?
On the strength of the Albert Hall people come along and find it easier to bring their friends. It’s easier to get in local papers. But we now need to replace that with a story about the music. That’s the dilemma. For now we’re putting out the present single ‘Crazy Boy’ to see if we can get an Indie Chart placing or whatever – radio, TV. Maybe that will be the next story, the guys who sold 8,000 singles, or the guys who got to number 50. Whatever. That’s the idea for this Autumn.

Show Of Hands official website

Royal Albert Hall


  1. Ian Thistlethwaite

    I remember a Phil Beer solo record released around the time I was five (my dad played it lots), then seeing him in the Albion Band, and then in a band called “Tickled Pink”. This has been lovely to read, as it fills in blanks between my childhood and now!

  2. David Cartlidge

    informative and inspirational. Particularly as I am trying to run a band on the Show of Hands model of how it’s done.
    Thank you

  3. I’m a late finder/fan of SoH. A most interesting article. I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for about 40 odd years and only now I am considering a step into professionalism following some prods from US friends and blues-picking mentors. Gave me something to chew over. Thanks.

  4. Truly enlightening. I blagged a slot at a festival going onstage just before Show Of Hands in 2007. I wish I had had the bottle to talk to them as I may have learned a lot. A lot of busking and scraping by has happened between then and reading this.
    It’s like you just switched a light on in my head so thank you for a great interview.

  5. Lin Truscott

    ‘fascinating article.
    I’m a non “folkie” and have heard Show of Hands several times in the last few years since moving to the South West and recently been to 2 of Steve Knightley’s Village Hall Tour performances. I defy anyone to not be impressed by the heady cocktail of musicianship, wordsmanship and the musicality that makes the heady cocktail of Show of Hands.

  6. Bolg Wrad

    Great, very informative and encouraging. I just don’t like Steve’s voice much.

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